CNN failed to detail Chertoff's Katrina "problem" while discussing possible attorney general appointment

››› ››› JULIE MILLICAN

While discussing possible replacements for Alberto Gonzales, several CNN anchors and reporters cited DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff's handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as a "potential problem" but did not provide any details regarding Chertoff's mismanagement of the disaster. Indeed, two congressional reports specifically identified numerous failures by Chertoff and DHS in overseeing the government's response.

While discussing possible replacements for outgoing Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales during the August 27 editions of CNN's American Morning and CNN Newsroom, CNN anchors and reporters asserted that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has "impeccable credentials," "unquestioned personal credibility," and "the resume for it." But while several correspondents cited Chertoff's handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as a "potential problem," at no point did CNN provide any details regarding Chertoff's mismanagement of the disaster. Indeed, two congressional reports on the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina specifically noted Chertoff's numerous failures in overseeing the government's response.

In particular, CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin repeatedly stressed Chertoff's "resume for the job." After "confess[ing] a certain bias about Michael Chertoff" because he was once "Chertoff's intern in the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan," Toobin asserted that Chertoff "was a wonderful prosecutor" who "certainly has the resume for the job." Toobin added that Chertoff "has become a figure of political controversy" because he "was the head of Homeland Security during Katrina" and he "was [former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)] Michael Brown's boss."

On American Morning, co-anchor John Roberts conducted an interview with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) during which Schumer stated it would be "premature to speculate" about a possible Chertoff nomination; asserted that he believed there were "lots and lots and lots of problems" within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS); and concluded that the nomination process to succeed Gonzales "needs some careful thought." Following the interview, Toobin asserted that "it was highly significant. When you look at Schumer, who is among the most partisan Democrats in the Senate, the head of the Democratic Senate campaign operation," that "he was very cautious to favorable about the Chertoff -- the possible Chertoff nomination." Toobin asserted that Schumer's remarks were "a very good sign for both the White House and for Chertoff himself, because Chuck Schumer is no shrinking violet. He would not hesitate to oppose someone that he thought the Democrats could really rally against, and the fact that he took this wait-and-see attitude about Chertoff struck me as a very positive sign, both for the nomination and for his ultimate confirmation." Roberts later said, "I don't know how much more there is to know about him [Chertoff]. It's pretty much an open book."

Other CNN anchors and reporters also touted Chertoff's "resume." On CNN Newsroom, CNN chief national correspondent John King stated that Chertoff is "highly regarded. As we were saying all morning, he has the resume for it." King also described Chertoff as "a man of unquestioned personal credibility," despite being "roundly criticized" in the aftermath of Katrina "for not taking charge and making immediate, quick decisions and dispatching federal resources." While discussing Chertoff's potential nomination to succeed Gonzales, CNN congressional correspondent Dana Bash asserted that "it is very likely" that the nomination process is going to be difficult "even if you have Michael Chertoff. He is somebody who has impeccable credentials when it comes to his legal background." Bash added that "many Democrats and even some Republicans look at Michael Chertoff and say he was at the heart of what, across the board, people say was a problematic federal response to Katrina," which "is a potential problem with him." On American Morning, referring to the Katrina response, Bash similarly reported that Chertoff was "really at the center" of "mismanagement ... at the federal level."

Yet, beyond simply citing his handling of Katrina as a "potential problem," CNN did not provide any specific information on Chertoff's role in the government's response to Katrina, despite several highly critical government reports on the matter. For instance, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs issued a report in May 2006 that concluded Chertoff's agency "failed to effectively lead the federal response to Hurricane Katrina" and listed specific steps Chertoff failed to take in advance of the storm and following it. From the committee's "findings" regarding the federal response:

28. DHS, the agency charged with preparing for and responding to domestic incidents, whether terrorist attacks or natural disasters, failed to effectively lead the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

29. In advance of landfall, Secretary Chertoff failed to make ready the full range of federal assets pursuant to DHS's responsibilities under the National Response Plan (NRP).

30. DHS leaders failed to bring a sense of urgency to the federal government's preparation for Hurricane Katrina.

31. Secretary Chertoff failed to appoint a Principal Federal Official (PFO), the official charged with overseeing the federal response under the NRP, until 36 hours after landfall.

32. The Interagency Incident Management Group (IIMG), intended to coordinate the federal response to a catastrophe, was not activated until the day after landfall, and then added little value to the federal response effort, leaving federal agencies without an intermediate inter-agency dispute resolution mechanism.

33. Secretary Chertoff failed to activate the Catastrophic Incident Annex (CIA) of the NRP, which could have led to a more proactive federal response.

34. Secretary Chertoff appointed a field commander, Michael Brown, who was hostile to the federal government's agreed-upon response plan and therefore was unlikely to perform effectively in accordance with its principles. Some of Secretary Chertoff 's top advisors were aware of these issues but Secretary Chertoff has indicated that he was not. Secretary Chertoff should have known of these problems and, as a result, should have appointed someone other than Brown as Principal Federal Official.

Similarly, the House of Representatives' Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina, which released its final report on February 15, 2006, found that "critical elements of the National Response Plan," for which Chertoff was responsible, "were executed late, ineffectively, or not at all." The report also asserted that "DHS and the states were not prepared for" Katrina. From the report's "Executive Summary":

Critical elements of the National Response Plan were executed late, ineffectively, or not at all

  • It does not appear the President received adequate advice and counsel from a senior disaster professional.
  • Given the well-known consequences of a major hurricane striking New Orleans, the Secretary [Chertoff] should have designated an Incident of National Significance no later than Saturday, two days prior to landfall, when the National Weather Service predicted New Orleans would be struck by a Category 4 or 5 hurricane and President Bush declared a federal emergency.
  • The Secretary [Chertoff] should have convened the Interagency Incident Management Group on Saturday, two days prior to landfall, or earlier to analyze Katrina's potential consequences and anticipate what the federal response would need to accomplish.
  • The Secretary [Chertoff] should have designated the Principal Federal Official on Saturday, two days prior to landfall, from the roster of PFOs who had successfully completed the required training, unlike then-FEMA Director Michael Brown. Considerable confusion was caused by the Secretary's PFO decisions.
  • A proactive federal response, or push system, is not a new concept, but it is rarely utilized.
  • The Secretary should have invoked the Catastrophic Incident Annex to direct the federal response posture to fully switch from a reactive to proactive mode of operations.
  • Absent the Secretary's invocation of the Catastrophic Incident Annex, the federal response evolved into a push system over several days.
  • The Homeland Security Operations Center failed to provide valuable situational information to the White House and key operational officials during the disaster.
  • The White House failed to de-conflict varying damage assessments and discounted information that ultimately proved accurate.
  • Federal agencies, including DHS, had varying degrees of unfamiliarity with their roles and responsibilities under the National Response Plan and National Incident Management System.
  • Once activated, the Emergency Management Assistance Compact enabled an unprecedented level of mutual aid assistance to reach the disaster area in a timely and effective manner.
  • Earlier presidential involvement might have resulted in a more effective response.

From the August 27 edition of CNN's American Morning:

HEIDI COLLINS (anchor): Kelli, quickly, I'm not sure if you heard, but John King was -- I had asked about who could possibly replace Alberto Gonzales. What do you think about the head of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff?

KELLI ARENA (Justice Department correspondent): Right. Well, you know, I knew Michael Chertoff. He worked over at Justice, he was the head of the criminal division, a former federal judge, as you know, now the head of DHS. He's very well respected, not seen as a very political person, but again, you know, that's a very tricky move. You know, DHS, I mean, everybody is trying -- the administration is trying to show how important that department is. May not want to mess with that right now.

Another name that always resurfaces whenever you have a change of attorney general is former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson. He's in the corporate arena right now, said to be very happy in his job, but that's a name that'll likely pop up.

[...]

ROBERTS: So what about a replacement? What about this idea of Michael Chertoff? And what about the confirmation battle that could erupt in the Senate Judiciary Committee?

TOOBIN: Well, you know, I have to confess a certain bias about Michael Chertoff. In the summer of 1986, right after I graduated from law school, I was Michael Chertoff's intern in the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan. And, you know, I've known Mike for a very long time. He was a wonderful prosecutor. He did perhaps the most important Mafia case in the history of organized crime prosecutions, the Commission case in Manhattan. He then went on to be the U.S. attorney in New Jersey, court of appeals judge in the early part of the Bush term, then head of the criminal division. He certainly has the resume for the job. He was a law clerk to Justice William Brennan, the biggest liberal probably in the history of the court. So he certainly has the resume you'd want.

However, he, too, has become a figure of political controversy.

COLLINS: Exactly.

TOOBIN: Remember, Michael Chertoff was the head of Homeland Security during Katrina. He was Michael Brown's boss. So he is going to be not --

COLLINS: Then you have to --

TOOBIN: I'm sorry. Go ahead.

COLLINS: It just brings to mind the question of when you're getting on this point of some of his past history there, whether or not the Department of Justice, the people who work there, who go there every day, will be able to jump on board and begin following this individual.

TOOBIN: Well, I mean, you know, I think the people in the Justice Department are very anxious to be outside the realm of political controversy. They don't want to be --

COLLINS: They want to do their jobs.

TOOBIN: -- at the center of this sort of -- and I think any new leader will certainly be given the benefit of the doubt, and someone of Chertoff's evident qualifications, despite his political controversies of the recent years, I think he probably would rally a lot of support there.

ROBERTS: All right, Jeff Toobin for us outside of the courthouse in Richmond, Virginia.

[...]

ROBERTS: Senator, let me ask you just in a general sense, what's your opinion of Michael Chertoff?

SCHUMER: Well, my opinion of Michael Chertoff is that at Homeland Security, there is still lots and lots and lots of problems. I haven't been as keen on his administration as others. Whether you look at port security or other types of things, those things haven't been done in the way that I think they should have.

There haven't been the resources or the focus. The passports issue has been a gigantic mess where the baton was not passed between the two. But those are issues about the Homeland Security Department. I think we'll also have to look at Michael Chertoff's record when he was a U.S. attorney --

ROBERTS: And what's your view of that?

SCHUMER: -- and the time when he was a federal judge.

ROBERTS: What is your view of that? What's your view of both of those careers?

SCHUMER: And I'm going to have to go back and study those things.

ROBERTS: Well, I mean, you're in New York. He was in New Jersey. He was on television all the time. You know, you and I both go to know each other when I was working the local news here in New York and you couldn't get Michael Chertoff off the TV. You have to have some sense what he was like as a prosecutor.

SCHUMER: Well, again, I think I'd want to reserve judgment until we hear from the official statement from the Justice Department. Not that I doubt that the attorney general is resigning, but I think this needs some -- I think this needs some careful thought. In the past, I've thrown out a bunch of names that would be acceptable.

Again, I can tell you our criteria. Rule of law first and foremost. This Justice Department has seen the rule of law take a backseat to political considerations, and that has to be undone and undone quickly.

[...]

ROBERTS: Jeff, I know you were listening in to what of somewhat Chuck Schumer said.

Did not really owe oppose the idea of Michael Chertoff taking over, did he?

TOOBIN: I thought it was highly significant. When you look at Chuck Schumer, who is among the most partisan Democrats in the Senate, the head of the Democratic Senate campaign operation, he was very cautious to favorable about the Chertoff -- possible Chertoff nomination.

I think that's a very good sign for both the White House and for Chertoff himself, because Chuck Schumer is no shrinking violet. He would not hesitate to oppose someone that he thought the Democrats could really rally against, and the fact he took this wait-and-see attitude about Chertoff struck me as a very positive sign, both for the nomination and for his ultimate confirmation.

COLLINS: Is there a person, Jeff, that could come into this position and make both sides happy? The Democrats and the Republicans. Does that person exist?

TOOBIN: Well, I don't know if happiness is really the goal, but I think there are people who would not excite more controversy than already exists around the Justice Department. And based on Chuck Schumer's initial reaction, it certainly seems like Michael Chertoff, if he's the nominee, will be given a chance, will be given the opportunity to say, "I'm a different person, I will put rule of law first, I'll take the politics out of the operations of the Justice Department, I'll return the career employees to a place of prominence." That, I think, is what the Senate is going to want to hear, and it sounds like at least Chuck Schumer is going to give Michael Chertoff the opportunity to make that case.

ROBERTS: All right, Jeff Toobin for us this morning outside the courthouse there in Richmond, Virginia. Thanks very much. Dana Bash still on the phone with us, she's been working her sources on Capitol Hill on the Republican side because certainly we're hearing a lot from Democrats. [Democratic presidential candidate] John Edwards said it's about time.

Chuck Schumer said very similar things, though he said he's going to withhold judgment on Michael Chertoff until the official announcement is made and until he learns a little bit more about him, though I don't know how much more there is to know about him. It's pretty much an open book.

But, Dana, what are Republicans saying this morning about replacing Gonzales, particularly when we look at this historic anniversary of two years since Hurricane Katrina?

BASH: Well, you know, that is really the key. You just hit the nail on the head. And the one thing that we really have to keep in mind when you're talking about Michael Chertoff, as Jeffrey Toobin said, John, Chuck Schumer was uncharacteristically diplomatic, if you will, about Michael Chertoff.

But he also mentioned the fact that he is not that thrilled with the way that he has managed -- Michael Chertoff has managed the Department of Homeland Security. And we cannot forget where we are right now on the calendar. And we are two years this week after Katrina.

And you remember, at the time, Michael Chertoff was somebody, when you talked about the mismanagement, if you will, at the federal level and the federal government, he was somebody who was really at the center of that. And Democrats will not forget that if, in fact, they do have Michael Chertoff in the chair in front of them in a confirmation hearing for the head of the Justice Department. Because when you look at the November election last year and you look at what some of the themes the Democrats have been pounding on over and over again, it is what they see as mismanagement of the Bush administration at the federal level in key agencies. One, of course, is the Department of Justice, as we saw with Alberto Gonzales, and the other was the Department of Homeland Security.

So, this is a whole new thing that if Chertoff is nominated that he would be in place for in his credentials as a lawyer as a judge will certainly be in place, but what Democrats perceive as mismanagement could be an issue. And I've already gotten an email from a Senate judiciary aide saying that, you know, don't be so sure that it will so easy if it is, in fact, Michael Chertoff.

ROBERTS: Right. OK, Dana Bash, I'm going to let you keep working your sources. We'll get back to you. Thanks very much.

From the 9 a.m. ET hour of the August 27 edition of CNN Newsroom:

BRIANNA KEILAR (anchor): So, Suzanne, when you say relatively quickly, that this sort of -- and I know you called it musical chairs earlier, that these -- that people filling different positions. Are you expecting that this is going to shake out within the next week? What is the timeline? Do you know?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX (White House correspondent): Well, they certainly are saying you're going to hear things within the next week, you're going to hear these developments. We are going to -- obviously, this is Gonzales' day, this is the president's day to pay any kind of respect and admiration to Gonzales, so they'll both be speaking. But they say, "Give this some days. Look at this week as a very critical week in terms of news coming out here." And they say their number one pick is Michael Chertoff.

We know, of course, he has to go through a confirmation process, one that may be a bit rough, but they say, "Look at his resume. He has good relationships with those on Capitol Hill overall."

We know that the Katrina debacle does not help him in that situation, but overall he has good relations with lawmakers. He has the resume that is necessary to get through that process. They believe that he is the best shot at this -- Brianna.

KEILAR: All right. Suzanne Malveaux live for us there at the White House. Thanks, Suzanne.

[...]

KEILAR: And a lot of our reporters, obviously, have heard from sources that one of the major names being floated for Gonzales' replacement is Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

What do you make of this, John?

KING: Well, it would be a bold choice in the sense that you're taking someone out of a department that the administration has said is so critically important to the domestic security of the United States. But he is someone who is very highly regarded by both the president and the vice president. As we've been saying all morning, he certainly has the resume for it.

Experience in the Justice Department, which is a critical thing given how complicated and expansive the department is, a former federal judge. A man of unquestioned personal credibility, but, Brianna, as you've been hearing all morning -- I heard Dana Bash earlier this morning saying she's already getting indications from Democrats that he would face tough sledding. And many Republicans aren't huge fans of Michael Chertoff either.

And so the administration is going to face a test here. Are they going to again say, "Too bad. We're going to pick our guy and send him up there, and we're going to count on Republicans to stand with us and fight back to confirm him even if they don't really like him"? Because remember, he was the secretary of homeland security when Katrina happened, two years ago this week, and he was roundly criticized for being too lawyerly, for not taking charge, for not making immediate, quick decisions and dispatching federal resources.

The criticism was he wanted to think about his options, to review his options. And he also was one of the administration's point men on the immigration issue, ends up there with the commerce secretary, Carlos Gutierrez, and many Republicans will tell you they simply kept trying to ram a proposal down the Republicans' throats that the Republicans did not want to accept.

So, if the president, with a 30-something percent approval rating, is going to go to the well to fight for Michael Chertoff, it shows you that even as he's trying to clean house, he also has a bit of a defiant, stubborn streak in him.

[...]

BASH: Because I can tell you, T.J., in talking to Republicans over the past several months, one of the things that they sort of shrugged their shoulders at when it came to the president sort of defying Congress and not firing Alberto Gonzales is the fact that they said, "Well, you know, politically, it would almost be worse for us to go through the first confirmation process with the Democratic Congress of somebody this high profile."

And that is what we're going to see, T.J., in the next coming weeks. We are going to see the Democratic-controlled Congress go -- put the president's nominee through, and you're going to see a battleground, essentially, for a host of issues that Democrats have been really hitting the president on that go through the Department of Justice.

T.J. HOLMES (anchor): So, Dana, you're saying that no matter who the president picks, it's going to be nasty up there on the Hill for this confirmation, no matter who he selects. And I know the name Michael Chertoff has been thrown around a lot so far this morning. And that is a -- it looks like a strong possibility.

But no matter who he selects, that this Congress is going to give the president all kinds of heck over this, and this is just going to be a nasty process, given the tone up there on the Hill and, also, we've been in a political season, it seems like, for the past year almost, with the presidential election.

BASH: It is very likely that that is going to be the case, T.J., because, look, even if you have Michael Chertoff. He is somebody who has impeccable credentials when it comes to his legal background. He was a federal judge. He, you know, he worked inside the Justice Department. But he also has worked inside the Bush administration.

And many Democrats look at him and say, just for example, where we are right now in the calendar. Two years ago was Hurricane Katrina. Many Democrats and even some Republicans look at Michael Chertoff and say he was at the heart of what, across the board, people say was a problematic federal response to Katrina.

So that is a potential problem with him. And you're right, I mean, certainly -- what Democrats and Republicans are going to be looking for, that they simply thought that Alberto Gonzales lacked, was experience in the trenches, as one Republican senator once put it to me, somebody who really understands the Department of Justice because they had worked there, and they had been there.

Network/Outlet
CNN
Person
Kelli Arena, John King, Suzanne Malveaux, Dana Bash, John Roberts, Jeffrey Toobin
Show/Publication
American Morning, CNN Newsroom
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